Sunday, July 3, 2011


Day 14 of what will become a random series of recollections about a recent trip to New York City, Boston, MA and the wilds of the Maine’s “Down East” coast.

BACK IN ABOUT 1959, a System 99 freight truck aligned its articulated rear end with our 175-foot gravel driveway and began creeping backward. Inside was a parcel – ordered some six months before – from a place a continent away. All of the boys in the neighborhood gathered as the Teamster carefully dragged the burlap-enwrapped treasure out of his trailer and laid it gently on the gravel drive. Moments later, laying atop a course bed of torn hemp fabric, the 18-foot Old Town “Guides Special” breathed for the first time since it left its factory in south central Maine.

Black Butte Reservoir, Glenn County
By the end of the first week, the green boat was strapped to the top of our ’54 Ford headed for flat water. Any flat water. Across town, Horseshoe Lake beckoned. Little more than a glorified mud puddle at the opening of Upper Bidwell Park, this flat water would be where brother Bill and I could tip the canoe over, then climb in and bail the thing out.

Black Butte Reservoir, Glenn County
The reason the family needed such a craft was that the year before, neighbors had invited us to their cabin at Bucks Lake. Another invitee had brought along a sky blue Old Town Otca. Just as I dream about the next great, sexy motorcycle, I’m sure mom or dad dreamed incessantly about having an Old Town. Within the year, we were back at Bucks paddling a full load of kids into and out of the little bay in front of the cabin.

Butte Lake, Lassen Park
Over the years, we used the canoe to freight people from shore to the Kingsley’s red sailboat on Manzanita Lake; pack two weeks worth of supplies for an extended camping trip up on Shasta Lake; allow the current of the Feather River to carry us from somewhere below Marysville to somewhere further below Marysville; and glide across countless lakes in the Sierra and Coast Range.

Along the way, the boat was hauled atop the ’54 Ford, a ’63 Ford, a classic Toyota FJ-40 and even my VW Super Beetle.

It came to a crippling end when, during a particularly wet winter, Brother Bill and I decided to put in a One-Mile Dam in Chico and ride the creek to where it passed in front of our house. Somewhere along the way, the bow ran itself under a fallen sycamore tree. The current lifted the back end of the boat up and cracked the cedar in a manner no one who’s seen these things had ever seen before. 40 years later, it hangs in Brother Bill’s garage awaiting repair.

Courtesy WCHA
ON THE GROWING TO-DO LIST in my seven-year-old head back in ’59, was to visit the factory in Old Town. Using the Garmin system in our rental car, I inputted an address and followed the directions. In 1898, the story goes, George Gray hired A E Wicket to build a canoe out behind his hardware store. It was a hit. In 1903, the Old Town Canoe Company incorporated. I’d hoped to drive up to the old brick hardware store and see men in overalls adzing and smoothing and painting and varnishing. Imagine my surprise when the nav system brought us to a set of low, flat buildings clustered well out of town. I tapped the thing once or twice to see if it needed to reset.

No such luck. Before us was the Old Town Canoe “Factory Outlet.” Inside was a collection of the company’s latest offerings: extruded plastic canoes and kayaks along with paddles, life vests, t-shirts and ball caps.

“I’d like to see a wood and canvas,” I said to the young man who’d asked if he could help.

“Only have the one down there,” he pointed. “We don’t make them anymore.”

My heart stopped. I’d traveled 3200 miles and didn’t need to hear: We don’t make them anymore.

“But there’s a guy upstate who has our moulds who makes them for us.”

“That’s why I see you require a 50% deposit and have to wait a year.”

“Yep, that’s why.” Then he added, “We hoped to bring the moulds back when we have the space to expand and starting building them ourselves.”

“What about the one down there? Is that one jobbed out?”

“Nope. That’s the last of the ones made by us.”

THE 17-FOOT OTCA rested on horses. Its line perfectly replicated the one from Bucks Lake that had so deeply enthralled my parents. The bow and the stern each rise a bit higher than those on our Guide’s Special. And the tumblehome curved more gracefully inward along the length of the boat. The wicker seats were identical to those I’d learned to paddle on. Even the studs holding the thwarts in place were capped with brass capped in a diamond shape. And it was green.

It was as if there was nothing else in the whole voluminous store. This was why I’d come.

“Marked down to $6,000.00,” the young man said from a distance. “Last one.”

I believe mom and dad had paid around $875.00 including freight.

I thought about my new-to-me Moto Guzzi Breva – last of the two-valve engines that they would produce (or so they told me) and I wished I had an extra six grand in my pocket. Maybe I’d buy the thing and give it to Brother Bill.

Then Candi tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “I don’t think it will fit in carry on.”

RESOURCES: The Wooden Canoe Heritage Association. A non-profit membership organization devoted to preserving, studying, building, restoring, and using
wooden and bark canoes, and to disseminating information about canoeing heritage throughout the world. The website is a treasure of builders, restorers, craftsmen, historians, boats-for-sale, and other intriguing info harkening back to our truly “green” times. (Parenthetically, the one-time chair of this organization was, at the same time, chair of BMWMOA.) Old Town Canoe holds a special place for the Church of the Open Road. Their website is comprehensive listing all of the many products they produce for enjoyment of the quiet waters. While their current tag line is “advancing tradition,” until they have the space to resurrect construction of the classic cedar and canvas models, the term “tradition” may be a bit over-spoken. Call me ‘Tevye’ if you like.  This early-on post from the Church of the Open Road recounts the demise of the great canoe and the beginning of my interest in motorcycles.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. much to repair the old canoe?

  2. JEH: I loved your photos of Old Town factory. I never had an Old Town (my canoe was a Blue Hole fiberglass whitewater canoe). But, my favorite tandem partner had a green Old Town much like the pictures of yours. There is nothing, for me, closer to God than sitting in a canoe floating down a river. I liked reading your stories, as always.

    Oh, by the way, my Blue Hole cost $575 in 1978. I had to go with fiberglass because I was paddling on some pretty wild, rocky rivers. But, I coveted the Old Towns I saw on the river. Always had a fantasy of owning one when I got older and retired to a lake somewhere. Neither of those fantasies came true.

  3. @ Anonymous: The cost of repair will be minimal compared to the time involved. By now, the old wood is pretty dried out and crackly. It will take quite a bit of nourishment to get the cedar and mahogany back into fighting shape. We have the canvas and the "dope" use to adhere the fabric to the wood. We just haven't figured out the time.

    @ JEH: Please consider adding one word to the last sentence in your thoughtful comment. That word is "yet."

  4. Lovely story, fantastic pictures. Grandma Frances is quite a remarkable woman!

    I keep bugging dad to get that canoe worked on, but he can't be bothered, of course.